This is a reprint of an article authored by Chris Schultz, which first appeared in the Lake Geneva News on July 21, 2015
Firm makes precision parts, builds talent
POINTING THE WAY, Barry Butters, education coordinator at Precision Plus, Elkhorn, leads Reggie Newson, right, secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, on a tour of the Precision Plus work floor during Newson’s visit to the plant on July 15.
July 21, 2015 | 10:23 AM
ELKHORN — Reggie Newson, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development secretary, said he was impressed with Precision Plus, 840 Koopman Lane.
Newson paid a visit to the company on July 15. It was his first time at Precision Plus
The relatively small, privately-owned firm is a modern facility with state-of-the-art machinery that specializes in precision-turned metal components for a variety of uses, from cuff links to military ordnance.
But more importantly, the company is manufacturing talent, Newson said.
Three years ago, Mike Reader, president and CEO of Precision Plus started a training program that brought in high school and college students from Wisconsin and Illinois, teaching them the basics of precision engineering and manufacturing, and giving them real-life experience on the work floor.
Reader also hired Barry Butters, a former teacher and school administrator in Elkhorn and Williams Bay, as the company’s education services coordinator.
The company recently more than doubled its floorspace, going from about 45,000-square-feet to more than 100,000-square-feet.
It is also installing 100 kilowatt solar panels on the roof.
“It’s the largest industrial solar array in Walworth County,” Reader said. The array will feed sun-created electrical power into the building’s main panel and excess will go out on the grid. Reader said he’s working with the local utility so his company can earn credits for the electricity it creates.
But the company’s self-proclaimed mission of reaching out to students interested in manufacturing and enrolling them in the company’s apprentice training program has attracted interest from educators and business owners across the state.
In 2014, the company added a new education center with eight precision computer learning stations where, without wasting a single piece of metal, students can see how a part is cut and shaved and shaped by one of the company’s computer numeric control (CNC) lathes.
Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, California, makes the software for the virtual machining simulation.
The company donated $100,000 in computer software to Precision Plus for the education center.
Butters has said that the CNC machines, which operate in three dimensions, are smart. The human operators have to be smarter.
For its efforts, Precision Plus also won the 2014 State Superintendent Business Friends of Education Award.
Newson said he wished he had “50 or so” other manufacturing employers with him on the tour. “They are having a challenging time finding talented individuals to fill their positions,” he said.
Precision Plus has developed a strong relationship with Elkhorn Area High School, and JoAnne Pella, the school’s career and technical education coordinator.
KEEPING HER EYES on the job, Amanda Mudlaff, an apprentice at Precision Plus, is an East Troy High School graduate and student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Photo by Chris Schultz/Regional News.
The company and school coordinate an annual Manufacturing Careers Panel at Elkhorn High School, where leading manufacturers are invited in to talk with students interested in the business of making things.
Reader said Precision Plus is also collaborating with Scott Forge in Illinois in the apprentice training program.
Reader said he is now trying to create an intern exchange program with Swiss precision manufacturers.
Precision Plus has 16 high school and college students in the apprentice program now.
Newson said he was impressed with the knowledge and self-confidence of the students who are participating in Precision Plus’ program
“This is the model,” Newson said during a sit down talk with students in the Precision Plus apprenticeship program.
About three years ago, manufacturers around the state were complaining that schools were not producing enough talent to fit their needs, said Reader. And he decided about that time “it’s time to stop whining about it, and get involved.”
Reader said he’s still reaching out to educators to get them involved in getting information to students about the futures in manufacturing.
And, he said, he wants to convince other companies that training future engineers is in their own best interests, even if the engineers they train don’t wind up working for them.
He described the progress as “slow but sure.”
“This is a long-term project,” Reader said. “This is years in the making.”
The best salespersons may be the apprentices themselves.
Newson said he became interested in Precision Plus after meeting student Kyle Gorst at a Project Lead the Way conference at Elkhorn High School last year, where Gorst gave a speech and presentation about his apprenticeship at Precision Plus
Newson said he was so impressed with Gorst’s presentation about the Precision Plus program that he decided to visit. Among the students he met at Precision Plus were Amanda Mudlaff, an East Troy High School graduate, now attending Milwaukee School of Engineering, while gaining practical experience working on projects at Precision Plus
She was the recipient of a $5,000 scholarship to MSOE.
Brittany Campbell, a Badger High School graduate who races in the Midwest small car racing circuit has an interest in automotive design.
She’s been in the program for two years and is now in her sophomore year at MSOE.
Ryan Reader, Mike’s son, is also in the program.
Brad Pearson, now at Blackhawk Technical College, said his parents at first weren’t happy with his decision to go into manufacturing.
Many still think manufacturing in terms of the “3Ds,” Pierson said. That is, dumb, dirty and dangerous work.
He said his parents’ concerns weren’t allayed until Reader and Butters took them on a guided tour of the well-lit, atmosphere-controlled Precision Parts plant.
“We had to convince mom and dad, no doubt,” Butters said.
Newson said he was impressed with the level of proficiency the students were demonstrating on the production floor.
“You are very talented and you’re doing it. You’re running the machines.” Newson told the students.
Newson said that the Wall Street Journal did a study and found that students with work and intern experience, even those with mediocre grades, were far more likely to be hired by manufacturing companies than students without experience, even those with the high grades.
Newson said there are hundreds of companies now with programs similar to Precision Plus, “but we want thousands.”
He said there are now 3,000 students who are part of the state’s youth Apprenticeship program, an increase from 2,500 just a few years ago. Many of the Youth Apprentice programs are coordinated through the state’s Cooperative Education Service Agency (CESA) districts.
“Youth Apprenticeship is one of our big programs we want to promote,” Newson said.
Before leaving, Newson asked what he could do. Reader said it was important that the state get the word out about the apprenticeship programs to other manufacturers in the state.
“They haven’t seen it, they haven’t heard about it and they can’t figure it out for themselves.” Reader said.
“I want to see this everywhere,” Reader added. “Help us get that message out.”